'Down to the sea in ships ...'


I love being at home, but need taking out and airing every now and again, or I get restless.

So, two trips coming up. Today it’s about the Tall Ships Race in Sunderland. Tomorrow, the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead.

The Tall Ships Race is an annual event taking place in European waters every summer and is organised by Sail Training International, a registered charity with worldwide membership. The Race is just one of the ways it promotes ‘the development and education of young people through the sail training experience, regardless of nationality, culture, religion, gender or social background.’

This year it was Sunderland’s turn to be the start host port, with 53 ships arriving on the 10th July and leaving on the Saturday 14th. As is the tradition, each host port arranges a programme of social, sporting and cultural activities for crews and visitors and we went along on the last day – a blisteringly hot, not-a-cloud-around one. We had a good look at the ships and watched them glide out of the river to head up the coast for the Parade of Sail. From there they were going first to Esberg in Denmark, then Stavanger and finally Harlingen in the Netherlands.

It was obvious from the number of people at the port, on the banks of the river and lining all available look-outs along the coast, that Sunderland had enjoyed having the ships and the ships had enjoyed being there. Huge congratulations to those in charge of organising all the associated events, the transport … everything.

A couple of things stick in my mind from the day. The first was the young people of many nationalities playing a game of tag on the Quayside in a jumble of laughter and different languages. The second happened as the Indian Navy sail training ship Tarangini started to move away from its moorings. Suddenly there was the sound of Indian music and four figures in traditional dress began to dance on the deck in a magical, exuberant goodbye to the crowds.

Forum Books - More than a bookshop


I’m lucky to have a range of bookshops where I live and I’m hoping to do a piece on all of them as this blog progresses, but first up has to be Forum Books – it’s offered me such a lot as a reader and a writer …



Since 2011 Helen and Stan have run Forum Books, an award-winning independent bookshop in Corbridge, Northumberland and as I’m writing this I’m wondering how to do justice to what this place means to me as a reader and a writer.

There’s something about walking in and seeing all those books that excites me afresh about the possibilities the world offers – those stories I’ll live; the things I can try; the people I’ll meet. The range is hand-picked, eclectic and just damned inspiring.



That’s not enough to make a bookshop great though is it? That extra something here comes from the enthusiasm the staff have for the printed word – they are happy and eager to talk books and match you up with a recommendation they think you’ll love.

Sample conversation : ‘This one? It’s set after the Korean war and someone has lost their voice, but not like a sore-throat thing, they’ve left it in a bag on a train and there’s a scene on a disused railway line that suddenly isn’t disused anymore and the pace is incredible and the characters and the end … oh, Hazel, the end … I was sobbing and laughing and you, I know you will love it.’

OK, I’ve made that book up, but you get the idea. Result? Despite hearing your bookshelves at home crying, ‘No, no, we are full,’ you buy the book and yes, you do love it. As Helen says, ‘People have so many things competing for their time – films, TV, the internet, music – if they are going to invest in reading, I want it to be a really good experience for them.’

This isn’t pushy selling – if you want to browse go ahead, it’s a lovely place to do it.



Before owning her own bookshop, Helen worked in publishing and also for one of the big bookstore chains, so she sees the book selling process from both sides. This comes across in the number of extra things offered to bring books to life for reader and author.

The list of author and illustrator events is long and impressive. Just off the top of my head I can remember Tess Gerritson, Emma Healey, Tara Westover, Mari Hannah, Ann Cleeves, Emma Bridgewater, Victoria Hislop, Diana Henry, Matt Haig and Emily St. John Mandel. Soon there will be Kate Atkinson. Writers, scientists, calligraphers, cyclists, cooks, you name it, they’ve had an event – all are well-attended and lively. There are also story times and book clubs and Forum Books works with local schools to bring authors in to talk to children.

How does Helen get so many great book people to visit? ‘I ask nicely,’ she says, ‘and I know they are often on a long tour and away from home so I try and make their visit to us as fun and friendly as I can.’


It’s not just big-name authors who are supported, I have had all my book launches with Forum Books and have seen how much time and effort is given to encouraging and providing opportunities for other local writers.

Have I forgotten anything? Ah, silent book discos for a wide range of age groups – most recently for YA readers at Gateshead Libraries – and selling books at big events like Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead and the popular Newcastle Noir event at the city’s Lit & Phil. There’s a taste of what the shop does on their Facebook page

On twitter they are @ForumBooks and on Instagram @ForumbooksCorbridge



In February of this year, the bookshop moved from the Market Place in Corbridge, to the old chapel. As it’s a listed building, the transformation had to be sympathetically done to retain many of the original features. The photos on this page, courtesy of Ian Wylie, show the bright and beautiful result.

One last thing  – business rate dispensation has been given to pubs in recognition of their community value, with qualifying pubs able to get £1,000 discount on their annual rates. Booksellers bring community and cultural benefits to the areas they are based in too and there is now a petition asking for independent bookshops to receive the same exemption as pubs. You can sign it here and listen to Helen being interviewed about it on Radio 4’s Today programme, here.

Forum Books
The Chapel
Market Place
NE45 5AW
01434 632931

New Website. New Start

New Website. New Start




Knowing what to write about today is easy – my new website.

Many thanks to New Writing North, Creative Fuse and the whole Digi-Transform team for all the advice, support and technical magic and to my mentor Katy Carr.

I have, for the last few years, had a fallow period where I’ve had to put writing to one side. And so this programme has come at the perfect time – it’s been a lovely opportunity to take a look at what I’ve achieved, what direction I want to take next and how I engage with readers and other writers.

All in all, an interesting and uplifting experience.

I hope you’ll take a look at the website and if you are a writer, please let me know if you’d like to write a blog piece and tell people what particular books, websites or courses have helped you with your writing.

My next blog post will be about my local bookshop. To find out why it’s so special, see you back here next week.

But before I go, I took the photo at the bottom of the page at another bookshop in Northumberland, Barter Books in Alnwick. It’s an interesting piece of poetry written before the internet, but strangely prescient.